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Can Mobile Data Make Local Hawaiian Businesses More Resilient?

People walk into local Hawaiian businesses every day. It is unlikely that the owner of one of those businesses is standing at the front door counting customers and asking where they came from.

But what if I said you could get this data from 1 out of 10 people who walk into any local business in Hawaiʻi County? What if I also said that you could buy this data for just five cents a record? If you wanted to keep tabs on your business and your top 20 local competitors, your total cost is $1.05 a month.

Now how is that possible? The answer is right there in your hands: your mobile device.

A mobile device user on a Hawaiian beach (Unsplash).

The Data is Already in Our Hands, We’re Just Not Using It

Data companies like SafeGraph collect location data from 250,000 mobile devices in the State of Hawaii. About 130,000 of these are Hawaiian “home” devices, determined to reside in the State of Hawaii and not somewhere else based on where that device was dwelling at night. Creepy, right? Not exactly.

As a mobile device owner, you can turn off location services at any time, or uninstall the app that provides location data. The data that comes from your mobile device is anonymous. No other personally-identifiable information besides your location can be requested.

Graph of non-Hawaiian mobile devices detected in the State of Hawaii and visitor arrivals (https://higeomancer.org).

Think of mobile data like remote sensing the market. The problem that companies like SafeGraph solved is how to use highly-accurate spatial data to determine where a mobile device was dwelling between 42,000 different points of interest (POIs) across the State of Hawaii.

Web map of points of interest (POIs) in Hawaiʻi County for which mobile data is available (https://higeomancer.org).

Where mobile devices dwell can be anything from a local full-service restaurant, a church, a public beach, or Home Depot. In case you were wondering, the acronym “POI” is pronounced “pee-oh-eye” (but I bet grandma still likes the POI real sour).

Web map of visits to full-service restaurants in Kailua-Kona in January 2020, just before COVID-19 (https://higeomancer.org).

Nothing is perfect. Because some parts of the population do not have the same chance of being selected into the SafeGraph mobile device panel, the sample is not perfectly representative of the population. Likewise, whenever you compare mobile device visits to a POI at two different points in time, you have to take into account that the sample size is different.

The Case for Using Mobile Data

I recently read an article about data from mobile devices and was surprised by one of the comments. Rather than being negative, the commenter explained why they choose to provide location data.

Despite their misgivings, they said that they used Google Maps all the time to avoid traffic. If everyone turned their location services off, no one could see local traffic conditions. From this perspective, mobile device users are contributing to a common pool resource of information that they directly benefit from to self-organize themselves out of their own traffic jam.

There is a lesson here.

Graph of visits to full-service restaurants and COVID-19 cases statewide (https://higeomancer.org).

Knowledge of highs and lows is what allows a successful Hawaiian business to anticipate and absorb periods of lower revenues, given the higher fixed and operating costs they typically have to bear to provide the goods and services that “we” prefer. Unfortunately, bearing these higher costs makes them less resilient to highs or lows that are much higher or lower than anticipated, something made all too clear during the COVID-19 public health emergency and its aftermath.

Graph of visits to full-service restaurants in Hawaiʻi County by district (https://higeomancer.org).

Here Endeth the Lesson

Mobile data can certainly help local businesses in Hawaiʻi County better deal with the unknown by helping them better understand “us” their market. But even more, we as a Hawaiʻi community can directly benefit from the mobile data that we provide if we can find ways of using it to self-organize ourselves out of the larger economic vulnerabilities that we tend to put ourselves into from time to time.

For more information and to take the survey on what kinds of mobile data information products you would like to see please visit https://higeomancer.org

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